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Pistol Work
by Jim Taylor

From my early youth I have been around men who were fast with a gun.   You would probably not recognize any of their names for they were (and are not) nationally known.  But they were fast never-the-less.  My Dad is one of them.    He has always been quick, having fast natural reflexes.  I can remember as a small boy watching him do fast work with both single action and double action pistols.  Working in law enforcement, he specialized on the double action later on and even in to his late 70's he was mighty sudden.  Barrel length never was a problem to him.  He was equally fast with a 4" or a 6" barrel.   Years   ago he used an 8" barreled Remington .44 cap & ball revolver to do fast draw.  An original 1858, he used it efficiently.  He would stand arm's length from a fence post, toss a quarter at the fence post with his gun hand, then draw and shoot the post before the quarter hit it.  Rarely did he not beat it.

Ed Piper was a prospector in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona when I was a kid.    Though I never got to meet him personally I was around people who did.   He carried a Model 1917 S&W .45 slung low and was pretty good with it.  He once had a man throw a cocked .30-30 on him.  The man began to cuss Ed, telling him he was going to kill him.  I guess he was working himself up to it.  While the guy was cussing him,  Ed jerked the old Smith and shot the guy 3 times.  Then he walked into Apache Junction and turned himself into the authorities.  The Sheriff investigated it and ruled it justifiable homicide.  Ed later said that the guy talked too much.  If he was going to shoot him he should have shot first, then cussed him.

To become proficient with a handgun means (to me) that the gun can be used accurately without conscious thought.  It has become an extension of the person.  Just as in driving a vehicle, if you have to think what to do when someone pulls out in front of you - it is too late! So with the proficient use of a firearm.  The reaction should be instinctive.....and correct.  Again, as in driving, hitting the brakes many times is the last thing you want to do.  But gaining that knowledge and skill does not come by reading books or watching TV.  It is the result of having practiced, practiced, and practiced.....and of having been "there" a time or two and survived.  And I don't mean in a gunfight.  I mean having used a firearm to make a quick shot on a snake that is about to strike, or to drop a critter that is intent upon getting you!  Or any other situation that would call for a fast, quick, accurate shot.

Most people today don't seem to want to spend the time, energy and money required to be really good - whether with a car or a gun.  However there is no other way.  Some things have to be sacrificed to attain one's goal of being really good.  (And this does include being SAFE while you are using the gun. To be proficient means you are good at every aspect of the use of the firearm.)  Once you have attained a level of workmanship with a gun, PRACTICE is the ONLY way to maintain it.

Someone once told Ed McGivern that a certain trick was impossible with a sixgun.  They claimed that there was no way to shoot a can 6 times in the air, when that can was dropped from the height of 20 feet.   Ed says in his book that after shooting approximately 30,000 rounds he found he could do it quite easily.   Most people don't shoot that much ammo in several years, let alone months.  But to get good you have to shoot a lot.  I was told that Ad Topperwein's driveway was "paved" with empty .22 shells.  Back in the '60's when I visited Nick Seivers who used to shoot for various ammo companies,  I noted the ground around his shop was covered with empty .22 shells.  My Dad put over 300,000 rounds through his S&W 586 in the first 10 years he owned it. That was one reason he won so many matches.  Constant practice.

Part of my routine has been to dry-fire 1/2 hour a session, twice a week.    Sometimes I will spend another half hour drawing and snapping the gun, practicing pointing the gun at some object and seeing how I am lining up on it.  All this is done along with shooting 100 or so rounds each week.  Some years back my friend Tom Peterson and I practiced together at least twice a month.  We got to the place where we could shoot palm-sized groups at 15 feet in total darkness.  I had an indoor range in those days where we would shoot in the winter and both of us got fairly good at it.

The practice of drawing and firing,  whether on the range or dry-firing, is not done at top speed.  The idea is to build smoothness and consistency.  What you put into the "computer" will come out when you start running on adrenaline.    Speed comes with fear and excitement.  When I get scared I want to be smooth and consistent.  For instance, I was walking in the desert with a visiting minister one afternoon, not paying too much attention to where I was going.  As I went to step down with my left foot I noticed a rather large, fat diamondback rattler under my foot all cocked and ready to go off.  Somehow, with my left foot still in the air, I levitated upwards to a pretty decent altitude. During this time I found my six-shooter in my hand and I was firing it.   Two shots hit the snake in the head and two hit him in the body.  I have the mental impression of firing all 4 shots while still in the air, though that does seem unlikely.  However it is the way I remember it.   The draw and firing were totally unconscious, simply an instinctive reaction.  If you practice for smoothness and consistency there will be a time when you will be faster than you can believe.

I do not know all the tricks the oldtimers used but I have come to understand that there were very few of the "face off, walk and draw" type shoot-outs made popular by the movies.  There were times when men faced each other in combat, but they usually had their guns in their hands.  Turkey Creek Jack Johnson faced two men at once in Deadwood.  They met in front of the cemetery, which was thoughtful of them.  They started toward each other at about 50 yards distant with their guns in their hands.  Before they had gone very many steps the two men coming at Johnson had each emptied their guns and switched to backup guns.  It is recorded that Johnson only fired two shots and that he killed both his adversaries.

Josephine Earp (Wyatt's wife) recorded in her memoirs "I Married Wyatt Earp" that Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp cocked their guns in their holsters as they walked up on the cowboys behind the OK Corral that fateful day.  It makes sense to me.  I would do the same thing - and have when I thought I was going to need it.  It is what was known as an "edge".  The "edge" was whatever the person felt would give him an advantage in a deadly situation.  Luke Short stated that he liked to use the .45 Colt and to crowd in close in a gunfight.  If he missed the first shot the blast usually set his opponent's clothes on fire.  That was Mr. Short's "edge". (note that he spoke of missing someone at arm's length!)  Another old-time Sheriff said he used talcum powder in his holster to help speed up his draw.  Whatever each person's "edge" was, the express purpose was to give them extra confidence in a bad situation. 

One thing stands out with all the people I have know who were really good with a gun......they were familiar with them.  It showed in the way they handled them.    There was no fumbling, bumbling around.  No "accidental" shots fired.  They were in control. These men handled their guns a lot, used them, shot them and worked with them consistently.  I sometimes cringe when I see people trying to unload a single action.  The barrels point this way and that, the ejector rod is poked, prodded, thumbed, slipped and there is a lot fumbling around. Usually they are picking at the shells, trying to get them clear of the gun.  Not a picture to inspire confidence.  I am sure some of the old timers are spinning in their graves!   It is said that Bat Masterson practiced in front of an audience quite often.  John Wesley Hardin was very good at handing his guns and could do spins, rolls and border shifts with ease.  Once, when he had been arrested by the Texas Rangers,  they gave him an empty gun and had him put on a show for them.  The Rangers said his skill was amazing. 

That kind of gun handling was done for several reasons, not the least of which was to maintain dexterity.  I don't go in for it myself, having dropped a gun in front of people and been embarrassed by it, but it is fascinating to watch a master at it.  And the man who is familiar with his gun has the best "edge" of all - personal confidence.  It only comes with PRACTICE!!  

Most all of my gun work has been done over the years with single actions. They are not the only type to use and I would not try to convince you that they are.  They are they type I have chosen to use.  Whatever type of firearm you use, PRACTICE with it.  Use it. Handle it daily.  Learn to manipulate it safely with either hand.  Shoot it - if not daily - at least weekly.  Get so familiar with the feel of it that when you use it, it lays in your hand naturally as if it were a part of you.  Treat it as least as well as you treat your lover.  It may someday save your life.  Mine has.


The essence of being a good shot is practice as we have said previously.  This is fundamental.  Since not everyone who desires to be a good shot lives where they can shoot every day, dry-firing is an obvious part of practice.  It is not my intention to go into the all various aspects of dry-firing a gun.  You should learn the particulars about your firearm yourself.  Just be aware that some guns cannot be dry-fired without damaging them and sometimes even those that are deemed safe for dry-fire suffer damage from it.   For instance I use Ruger Old Model single action revolvers.   Fairly straightforward, there are no transfer bars or weak links in the Old Models and one can dry-fire them for years.  One day I was holding the sights on a target on the wall, cocking and snapping the gun, endeavoring to hold the sights study through the hammer-fall.  As I pulled the trigger I heard a snap, and something hit the floor.   It turned out to be the spur on the hammer!  The metal had fatigued or something and the hammer spur had snapped off.  I had it rewelded, kept it in my parts bin for years, and when I built up my little .357 I put the hammer in it where it works fine today.  That is the only time I ever had anything like that happen.

For most guns, "snap-caps" are best used.  These cushion the blow of the hammer and keep parts from battering.  You can purchase them from most any gun shop.    In the old Colt SAA I put a small leather strip in frame and use that to cushion the hammer fall.  It keeps the frame from battering.  I have done that on the 1911 Colt ACP also.

I use small targets to align the sights on while dry-firing.  I like the target to appear slightly smaller than the width of the front sight when I look through the sights at it.  This allows me to try and keep it centered  when squeezing the trigger.   If my follow-through is good the sights will not move off the target during the squeeze and hammer fall.  For really precise work I like the target to appear 1/2 the width of the front sight when viewed through the sights.  A simple black mark on a piece of white paper works quite well.

For draw and point shooting, I like to hang a tennis ball from the ceiling on a string.    Then I swing the ball from side to side. I practice pulling the gun and poking the ball with the end of the barrel.  You can tell when you hit it square.   Cocking and squeezing while doing this can be helpful. Practice for smoothness and consistency, not for speed.  That will come with time and excitement.

With a "strong side" holster, the draw is accomplished by dropping the hand to the gun and pulling the hammer back as the gun is coming out of the holster.  My trigger finger is held out straight alongside the frame and is NOT in the trigger guard.  As the gun comes up clear of the holster it is poked toward the target.  As the gun is being shoved toward the target my trigger finger goes into the trigger guard. The trigger is pulled as the gun is poked at the target.  This mainly serves the purpose of keeping me from shooting my leg, though I have found it does help to hit what I am looking at also.

Some years ago I was showing off in front of some shooters.  I would toss a piece of 2x4 about 4" long with my gunhand, then jerk my pistol and shoot the block before it went 3 feet in front of me. ( I used full power loads in the .357 Magnum.)  In those days I just stuck my finger in the guard as I jerked the gun, never thinking.  On one occasion the gun hung up slightly in the holster and I fired a shot through my pants leg.    While it did not hit me, it scared me badly enough that I changed my ways of doing things and practiced never sticking my finger into the trigger guard until the gun was being poked at the target.  I have never had a problem since.


The single largest problem of dry-firing is what is known as the "One-More-Shot Syndrome".  This affliction usually befalls the dry-firer at least once in his life.  Basically it is caused by the repetition of the same action over and over during an extended period of time.  The synapses in the brain get "locked" into doing something the same way and if a completely different action is not undertaken, the person will perform that same action unconsciously, even if consciously not intending to.  While most times it results in no harm, it is potentially deadly.

I remember a cop who was dry-firing and practicing his draw before he went on duty.    He had spent over an hour practicing while waiting to head for the station.    When it came time to leave he loaded his gun, walked to the door, spun around, jerked the revolver and fired, centering a vase at the end of a 20 foot hallway.    While the shot was clean and accurate it did cause some consternation on the part of his wife.  Fortunately no one was in the line of the bullet which stopped several rooms later in a wall. This type of "accident" is more common than most people like to let on.   And like the weird uncle in the family, no one wants to talk about it.  But for those who undertake dry-firing on a regular basis, you do need to be aware of it.   For if you do not handle it right you WILL fire the gun later even though you do not want to.

I had a close friend who started dry-firing on a regular basis every other evening.    I warned him that at the end of his dry-firing sessions to put the gun away - out of sight - and not to touch it for at least an hour.  He said, "Sure, fine, OK."  One day I went to visit him and he was in a strange mood. Finally his wife said, "Are you going to tell him?" and he related how he had been dry-firing.    He put the gun away, but picked up his Colt Detective's Special and fired a shot through the wall.  No one was hurt. But they could have been.  I had hard time not saying, "I told you...!"

If you spend time dry-firing, when you are done PUT THE GUN AWAY.  DO NOT TOUCH IT OR ANOTHER GUN FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR.  GO DO SOMETHING TOTALLY UNRELATED - SOMETHING DIFFERENT.   If you don't you will fire it one of these days, unintentionally.  No matter how much you do not want to.

I was a kid living at home and one day spent several hours in front of a mirror, drawing and snapping, trying to beat the ugly guy in the mirror.   I decided to go out on the range and shoot some live ammo, so I put that gun away, strapped on a 7 1/2" single action, loaded it and walked past the mirror on the way out of the room.   As I walked past the mirror I made one of the fastest, smoothest draws of my life and centered the ugly guy in the mirror.  The shot was extremely loud in the house.  The mirror happened to be an antique vanity of my mothers. The shot ruined it as you might imagine.  I checked the hole in the wall, and in the living room, left a note for the folks saying I had to be elsewhere, that I had a slight accident but was unhurt, and departed until things cooled down a bit. 

I was present once when an individual shot himself with a gun he did not remember loading just a minute before.  The bullet went down his leg, alongside the knee, crossed over the shin and exited just above his ankle.  A mid-range .44 Magnum load, this wound laid him up for a year. He swore he had not loaded the gun, yet he was the only one who had been handling it.  When I picked it up I found 4 unfired rounds in it.

Dry-firing is a fun way to improve your skill or maintain your skill level. And it is effective.  Like all gun handling, it must be done in the proper manner.  Be aware of the dangers and act accordingly.  You do not have to be one of the "accidents".  While some of them are slightly humorous, they can be deadly.   We do not want or need those.  I already have plenty of stories already of holes shot in walls, ceilings, furnaces, and of thermostats shot off the wall and holes blown in mattresses.  I would rather not have any more.


Pistol work with a good sixgun can be one of the most frustrating AND rewarding undertakings of your life. It can get "old" .. doing the same thing over and over.  However. THAT IS WHAT GOOD TRAINING IS ABOUT. Repetition until you can act without thinking about it. When it comes to a high stress situation - be it a large critter intent on stomping you into the ground or a human adversary who intends to harm you or your family - you will not have the chance to get creative.  You will do what you have practiced.

Unfortunately for many people, what they have practiced is surrender.  

Don't be one of them.

REMEMBER - NO AMOUNT OF READING WILL TAKE THE PLACE OF GOING OUT AND DOING IT.  Just because you have read about it does not mean crap.  Until you DO it ..and PRACTICE it .. you are only deceiving yourself.  While it is not speaking about pistol practice, what the Good Book has to say is applicable here:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-- he will be blessed in what he does. James 1:23-25 (NIV)

Don't be a "hearer" - be a "doer".... If you haven't started yet, today is a good day.






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